The diversity of Mezcal
What is Mezcal :
Agave is the plant that is used to make Mezcal. While tequila can only be made from one type of agave (Blue Tequilana agave), Mezcal can be made from any type of agave. Though there is no official count of how many different types of agave are currently used in Mezcal, it’s commonly said that over 40 types are featured in different varieties of Mezcal. This more diverse use of agave, equals more diverse variation in flavor, aroma, and feel.
Agave Espadin is (for the most part) the only agave used in mezcal that you will see planted in long straight rows. All other varieties of agave are either wild or semi-cultivated. Wild agave are scattered throughout Oaxaca and other regions of Mexico, and semi-cultivated agave are often used to replenish the countryside. A semi-cultivated agave is typically started, from seed or pup, in a nursery before being planted in a field or on a hillside in a manor that can mimic wild disbursement. It can be difficult at times to distinguish between a wild or semi-cultivated agave without verbal or written record of their planting.
The agave is important because it carries a good deal of the Mezcal’s character. The agave is the sugar, which works with the natural airborne yeasts in fermentation to create alcohol. You may hear people talk about terroir when referencing wine, and similar terminology can be applied to Mezcal. Terroir refers to the environment in which the agave is grown, which greatly impacts the final mezcal product. For example, agave that is grown near coniferous trees can often carry hints of pine, and an Espadin from San Luis del Rio may produce very different flavor notes than an Espadin from Santiago Matatlan. The terroir seeps into the agave, and these environmental factors amplify as the agave grows for 8-25 years before it’s ready to be harvested.
The mysterie with the worm :
Let's clear something out. Mezcal is no Tequila with a worm (larva to be correct). In the old days the larva was used to indicate the alcohol strenght, if the larva would turn grey the strenght wasn't high enough. Today, when you find a Mezcal with a larva it's mostly a Mezcal of poor quality.
Agave, origin and quality indications :
The Agave isn't just a plant, some species have to age for at least 30 years before they can be harvested. Furthermore the Agave can be harvested just once, it won't grow back after.
Quality : The cheap supermarket tequila and Mezcal you'll find contain the legal minumum of 51% Agave Juice, the rest is added sugarcane juice or corn syrup. The better quality contains 100% agave juice, sometimes with a little water added. This percentage is also mentionned on the label, tough it doesn't guarentee in full that it's correct you can bet on it that you've got a good quality products at hand.
Origin : Each bottle should containe a NOM number on the label, if this isn't the case than the product is not certified by CRT who regulates the production and export. By this NOM number you can lookup the origin of your product in the NOM - Database.
Some of the Agave species are (most common) :
- Agave Cuishe : Agave Cuishe (or Cuixe) is a wild agave in the Karwinskii family that includes Madre-cuishe and Barril. It grows in a cylindrical, stalk-shaped piña, with leaves spreading at the top. It’s often slightly smaller than Madre-cuishe, and yields intensely flavored mezcal with high minerality and spice notes. It’s important to note, however, that the name Cuish could refer to slightly different plants depending on region. For example, a Cuish coming from the Santa Catarina Minas area may actually be agave rhodacantha similar to agave Mexicano.
- Agave Espadin : Agave Espadin (angustifolia) is the most commonly used agave in mezcal. It generally takes about 8-12 years to mature, and it can be grown in a variety of farm and wild environments. It is the most-commonly domesticated and most-easily cultivated agave used in mezcal production. Where blue agave (agave azul) dominates tequila, agave Espadin dominates mezcal. Until recently, agave Espadin was the only agave that was farm-grown, and even now it represents the vast majority of all farm-grown agave used in mezcal.
The different styles of Mezcal :
While most mezcal is joven (unaged or “silver” in the tequila world), there are many different styles of mezcal. Like tequila, mezcals that are gold or brown in color have been aged in barrels; that style is called reposado or añejo depending on the length of aging. Unlike tequila, mezcal has an aging process called “aged in glass”. Mezcals can also be made with two or more different agave species, called ensambles. Last but not least, the style of pechuga is one of the most interesting and unique to mezcal.
- Aged in Glass : Madurado is Spanish for “matured,” and this style is used to describe Mezcal that is aged, but not barrel-aged. Typically anything carrying the name Madurado, Matured, or Aged in Glass will have been aged more than twelve months in glass containers. The label on the bottle usually states the exact age.
- Añejo : Añejo means “aged” in Spanish. Mezcal Añejo is aged in oak barrels for at least one year, which gives it a dark, caramel color.
- Blend : A post-distillation blend is not the same as an ensamble mezcal. Blends are a result of separate distillations being blended together into a final product. These distillations may occur days, months, or even years apart from each other. Blends do not necessarily involve different types of agaves. In contrast, ensambles are mezcals made with two or more agaves and the different plants are cooked, crushed, fermented, and distilled together. A reason to do a blend instead of an ensamble is often to have more control over the final taste of the mezcal; this concept is similar to how mezcaleros often “blend” the heads, hearts, and tails of a single distillation together. *It should be noted that certain mezcaleros use the term “ensamble” to describe what is called a “blend” in the above text. Additionally, the term mezcla (mixture) is sometimes used to describe either method.
- Crema : Cremas are seen often in the world of tequila. Cremas combine the soft taste of cream with a spirit and are usually around 20% alcohol by volume.
- Ensemble : Ensamble mezcals are a combination of two or more agave species distilled together in a single batch. Typically, the agave piñas are also roasted and fermented together as opposed to mezcal “blends” which are separate distillations are mixed together to create a final product. Every ensamble mezcal is different as each mezcalero uses different agaves (and different proportions of each agave type) to create their ensambles. The mix of agaves can produce wildly-different flavor profiles. Ensambles are the traditional style of making mezcal during a time when mezcaleros would pick whichever agaves were ready for harvest, regardless of species. *It should be noted that certain mezcaleros use the term “blend” to describe what is called an “ensamble” in the above text. Additionally, the term mezcla (mixture) is sometimes used to describe either method.
- Extra Añejo : In 2006, the Consejo Regulador del Tequila officially established “Extra Añejo” as a category for tequilas aged 3-years or longer. While the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal has not established such a classification, certain brands are producing mezcals that meet the definition of Extra Añejo under tequila rules.
- Joven : Mezcal Joven is unaged and clear in color. Joven means “young” in Spanish and it is bottled directly out of the still.
- Pechuga : Pechuga starts with Mezcal that has already been double distilled. Typically this is agave Espadin, but there are some mezcaleros that make Pechuga with other agave varietals. Before the third distillation the mezcalero places the Mezcal in the still and adds seasonal wild fruits such as apples, plums, plantains, bananas, and pineapples, as well as spices and rice and anything else that the mezcalero prefers in their recipe. Next, a whole raw chicken breast, turkey breast, or piece of venison is delicately suspended in the atmosphere of the still. The third distillation begins and the Mezcal vapor passes over the meat and condenses into a clear liquid that has an amazing taste and smoothness.
- Reposado : Mezcal Reposado is aged, but it is not aged for as long as a Mezcal Anejo. Reposado means “rested” in Spanish, and the Mezcal rests in oak barrels for no less than two months and no more than one year. Mezcal Reposado is caramel in color.
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